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Convair's making of Tomahawk cruise missiles

The birds of war

In May of 1978, Convair test-fired a Tomahawk missile that traveled 403 miles from its launch site to a mock “enemy airfield” at the Utah test-and-training range.
  • In May of 1978, Convair test-fired a Tomahawk missile that traveled 403 miles from its launch site to a mock “enemy airfield” at the Utah test-and-training range.

Last month, on December 14, the San Diego-based, nuclear-powered submarine USS Guitarro lay in deep water near San Clemente Island, northwest of here. A stainless-steel capsule, resembling a giant twenty-two-foot cigar humidor, was loaded into one of its torpedo tubes. Captain Scott van Hoften gave the order to fire. A solid-fuel rocket motor drove a cruise missile from the capsule and torpedo tube. It ran through the water, breaking for the surface. Airborne, its tail fins and four-foot wings slid into position. The solid-fuel rocket booster dropped off the missile and its air-breathing turbofan engine took over.

Convair final-assembly area. About twenty assembly workers and technicians, some in white shirts and ties, others in jeans and flannel shirts, move casually around.

Convair final-assembly area. About twenty assembly workers and technicians, some in white shirts and ties, others in jeans and flannel shirts, move casually around.

Traveling at 550 miles per hour, it skimmed over the ocean at an altitude of 200 to 600 feet, crossing the coastline near Point Magu. It flew northeast over the sparsely populated countryside, too low for ground-based radar to spot. Its smooth design, special construction materials, and small size (twenty-one feet long, twenty-one inches in diameter) made it hard to spot with airborne, “downward looking" radar. The missile navigated to its target with a guidance system that includes “terrain contour matching," which compares its own sensing devices with maps stored in its computer memory, making in-flight course adjustments when necessary.

The rocket booster, along with the missile’s warhead, is attached to the vehicle to make a “fully capsulated bird" under tight military security in the Sycamore Canyon area of Convair’s plant.

The rocket booster, along with the missile’s warhead, is attached to the vehicle to make a “fully capsulated bird" under tight military security in the Sycamore Canyon area of Convair’s plant.

Approximately 300 miles from its launch site, the missile dropped down to some twenty feet above the desert floor and smashed through a small canvas-net target at the Tonopah Missile Test Range, 200 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. A direct hit. Observers from the Pentagon’s Joint Cruise Missile Project Office; the Navy’s Operational Test and Evaluation Force; and San Diego’s General Dynamics, the nation’s number-one defense-dollar contractor, immediately began a postflight analysis of the test, the seventy-ninth to be carried out in the past five years.

The previous Tomahawk cruise missile test had taken place earlier in the fall, on October 27. That same week hundreds of thousands of people had marched in Brussels, Rome, and London in protest of the nuclear arms race in general, and in particular, ip protest of the planned deployment in December, 1983, of the first ground-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles in the United Kingdom.

“Okay, the first ground rule is, we won’t discuss politics. This is very sensitive stuff. We as a company are not going to get into any kind of national issues. That’s not our business," explains Jack Isabel, General Dynamics western regional manager of news and information, as we clear security at Convair’s expansive Kearny Mesa facility.

Convair’s security system is unobtrusive but thorough. A visitor, after parking in a designated lot in front of the main administration building, goes to the front lobby desk, where he fills out an identity form for a plastic visitor’s pass, and picks up a parking token for when he leaves. A Convair official, who also must wear a photo-identity badge, then comes down to the lobby to accompany the visitor past a security guard post to the main work area. A uniformed General Dynamics security force patrols the 200-acre facility twenty-four hours a day, including its several miles of chain-link perimeter fence. Plant employees working in restricted areas are issued government security clearances after background checks by the Department of Defense and the FBI.

Convair, a division of General Dynamics, is San Diego’s largest industrial employer, with some 8400 workers involved in its aerospace and defense programs, including about 2000 people working on the Pentagon's seven-billion-dollar Tomahawk cruise missile project. Part of this work is carried out in building five at Kearny Mesa, next door to where they build the big Atlas/Centaur rocket boosters used for military and communications satellites, and as part of the space shuttle program.

Down a hallway in building five we come to the glassed-in final-assembly area for the cruise missile. We walk in just as five Air Force men in camouflage fatigues and red berets are leaving. This final-assembly area is rated a “clean room" — no smoking, food, or beverages allowed. The linoleum tile floors, observation windows, and walls are scrubbed nightly. Fluorescent ceiling lamps highlight any stray dust motes or smoke in the air.

A dozen missile assemblies in various stages of completion are scattered around the room on heavy gray roller stands. Racks of blue storage trays hold finished parts. Four full-scale mockups occupy space in the center of the room. About twenty assembly workers and technicians, some in white shirts and ties, others in jeans and flannel shirts, move casually around the area. It has the feel of an expensive sports car service and supply center, except that the vehicles here are priced at a million dollars each and have what one company brochure refers to as "improved lethality.”

From engineering labs in another part of the Convair complex come the electrical harnesses, avionics (electronics), and other vital components. A large machine shop near the final-assembly area produces more finished parts. At shipping and receiving, quality-assurance engineers go over the Williams Research turbofan engines and McDonnell-Douglas Astronautics guidance systems as they arrive from the subcontractors. All subassembly and machined parts will go through at least three inspections before they reach the final-assembly area in building five.

After assembly by specialized work teams, the near-completed missiles are moved through a pair of big bay doors at the opposite end of the room for “nondestructive testing." Only workers with top-security clearances are allowed in this test area, which, from a casual outside inspection, has the look and sound of a sea-going boiler room.

Back in building sixty-five, at the far end of the facility, the booster component, with its explosive rocket fuel, is being put together separately. The booster, along with the missile’s warhead, is attached to the vehicle to make a “fully capsulated bird" under tight military security in the Sycamore Canyon area of Convair’s plant. From here test missiles are trucked to the Ballast Point submarine base at Point Loma.

Convair is presently involved in a multimillion-dollar conversion from development to full-scale production of the cruise missile. Some eighty missiles are on order for 1982, with the number scheduled to rise to several hundred a year after that. Jack Isabel shows me a series of scale models at one end of the small assembly room. The walls between the present machine shop, assembly room, and testing area will soon be tom down and replaced by a modular assembly line that will require several hundred thousand square feet of space. “Of course, each bird will continue to get the same kind of individual, tender loving care," Isabel adds.

There are now four cruise missile programs under development for the Pentagon, three of them at Convair. Boeing in Seattle won the air-launched cruise missile contract after a competitive "shoot-off" with Convair several years ago. “Seven out of ten of our flights were successful, but they still got the contract. We were sure we had it,’’ recalls Vernon Cole, a mechanical-electrical aide who has worked twenty-three years for Convair. “It really shook us up. It was like when Kennedy was shot in Dallas. There was that same feeling in the whole department, that same kind of shock." The Boeing cruise is designed to be fired from the wing pylons and bomb bays of B-52 bombers. It is a strategic nuclear missile for use in attacks on the Soviet Union. Between 2500 and 3500 of these missiles will be produced and deployed throughout the 1980s, at an approximate cost to taxpayers of four billion dollars.

Convair is working on the ground-launched cruise missile, the sea-launched cruise missile, and the medium-range air-to-surface missile, the last design salvaged from their earlier air-launch effort. People at Convair refer to their three missiles as the “Glick ’em,” the “Slick ’em,” and the “Maras ’em.” The cost of the first two programs will run about seven billion dollars; the last program is still in the early stages of development, and costs cannot yet be estimated.

The ground-launched cruise missile is designed as a land-based, mobile system for tactical nuclear strikes in a limited (or theater) nuclear war. It has a range of about 1350 nautical miles (2500 kilometers). Four hundred and sixty-four of these missiles are scheduled for deployment in western Europe beginning in 1983.

The sea-launched cruise missile is designed to be fired from submarine torpedo tubes or from armored box launchers on surface ships such as the soon-to-be recommissioned battleship New Jersey.

The first twenty-one antiship Tomahawk cruise missiles, using high-explosive (nonnuclear) warheads, will be deployed on U.S. submarines in 1982. With a limited range of 240 miles, the antiship Tomahawk can be aimed in the general direction of a target and fired at low altitude to avoid enemy radar. At a programmed distance the missile’s radar begins searching for its target. Friendly ships in the area carry electronic signaling devices that allow the missile to distinguish them from the enemy. A total of 644 sea-launched cruise missiles (of all types, including long-range nukes) are on order through 1986.

The medium-range air-to-surface cruise missile is undergoing engineering development at Convair for deployment on Air Force B-52s and carrier-launched A-6 aircraft in 1985. This is a conventionally armed, short-range missile designed to attack heavily defended targets such as airfields.

In May of 1978, Convair test-fired a Tomahawk missile that traveled 403 miles from its launch site to a mock “enemy airfield” at the Utah test-and-training range. There it dropped eleven simulated bomblets from its forward module, destroying the runway. It then flew back over the runway, following a preprogrammed flight command, to photograph the damage it had inflicted. “That’s not the missile we’re building now, though, because the customer, the government, wanted a missile with a 250-mile range. They didn’t seem to appreciate that a long-range Tomahawk could also carry out a short-range mission,” complains an employee involved in quality assurance control and inspection, who asked not to be named.

“We had a bird that could do it better, more accurately, and at cheaper cost, but they weren’t interested.” She shrugs. “There’s a feeling here at Convair that the customer’s often playing games with us, although the problems aren’t all with the customer.

“We have our own problems, like a pay gap where long-time salaried employees often end up making little more than newly hired people. Bosses can also prevent people from transferring to other jobs in the company. People get fed up and leave. Convair has a tremendous turnover among skilled engineers and others, which slows production. We also spend so much time doing reports on production that production itself suffers. We have design engineers who never leave their offices to go down and actually look at the hardware. People are overworked and insecure. The company’s lack of sensitivity to human needs hurts production. Of course, that doesn't mean that over the long run we aren’t going to produce a great missile. Everyone supports the cruise; they’re neat little creatures when they fly right.”

“The cruise contracts are based on cost-plus,” explains Jack Isabel. “The customer pays for materials, labor, development, and any changes he might request. In addition, the company is guaranteed a percentage above cost as a fee. It’s all very carefully monitored by defense department auditors right here at the plant. You’re going to see a cruise evolution through the 1990s. This program’s going to be around for a long time to come.’’ In a November speech to the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, Convair general manager Leonard F. Buchanan predicted that Convair would hire 2000 new workers in addition to the 2000 already working on cruise as production expanded over the next twelve to eighteen months.)

“It’s not just the pay,’’ says Vernon Cole, who works on the cruise booster’s electrical wiring boards. “You’re looking for a living but also working for the self-defense of your country. Ninety to ninety-five percent of us have our whole heart in it. I hope, if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise, that I ’ll be around long enough to see it through.”

“The cruise missile is the one protection we have, if we have any,” agrees the quality-control expert. “It will prevent any other country from thinking they’re tops. It’s vital to the national defense.

“Of course, that doesn’t mean I go along with all these people who think everything’s all right and will keep going on the way it is,” she says. “I give the whole thing five years. I’m going to be out of here before it all comes down. Another five years and we’ll be into World War III. Of course, that’s my own opinion, that’s not something I talk about at work.”

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